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Lawsuit aimed at halting L.A. Zoo's construction of Pachyderm Forest exhibit can proceed, appeals court rules

September 24, 2009 |  7:49 pm

Billy

There's a new development in the long and passionate struggle between animal lovers over the fate of the Los Angeles Zoo's Pachyderm Forest exhibit, as a three-judge panel of California's 2nd District Court of Appeal ruled Wednesday to allow a lawsuit accusing the zoo of abusing elephants to go to trial. 

Attorney David Casselman, a longtime animal advocate who is also chairman of the board of an organization called Elephants in Crisis, filed the suit in 2007 on behalf of actor Robert Culp and real estate agent Aaron Leider.  But in short order, a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge ruled against them, saying the issues raised in the suit were political and not for a court to decide, our colleague Carla Hall reported on our sister blog L.A. Now.

Culp, the former star of the television series "I Spy," and Leider filed the suit under California's taxpayer waste statute, arguing that the Pachyderm Forest is a waste of money in light of what they call the zoo's abuse of elephants. They hope to halt construction of the $42-million exhibit, which has already faced intense opposition from those who say that the zoo's sole elephant, Billy, should be moved to a sanctuary rather than completing the expensive project. (The zoo has said it plans to eventually bring in additional elephants to live there with Billy after construction on the Pachyderm Forest is complete. But no firm timetable has emerged for the addition of other elephants, which are extremely social creatures. Billy's perceived loneliness is a major issue raised by opponents of the exhibit.) Construction has already been put on hold once, with the Los Angeles City Council voting in January to continue it.

"It's a great day for the elephants," Casselman said after the Appeals Court decision to allow the lawsuit to continue.  "Billy will finally get his day in court." 

Other opponents of the Pachyderm Forest have also cheered the decision. One prominent voice who's staunchly opposed to keeping Billy at the zoo, Catherine Doyle of the group In Defense of Animals, expressed happiness not just for the solitary elephant but also for taxpayers. "It's wrong to waste precious city resources on an inadequate elephant exhibit that the city can't afford and in which elephants will continue to suffer and die prematurely," Doyle said today.

In July, Doyle's group made public the details of a $3,281 fine paid by the zoo in 2008 as a result of a U.S. Department of Agriculture investigation into the deaths of Gita, an Asian elephant, and a chimpanzee named Judeo, both of which occurred in 2006.  Following the revelation, L.A. Zoo spokesperson Jason Jacobs said that, although the zoo had agreed to pay the fine, it had not admitted to violations specified by the USDA in its report.

RELATED:
Activists rally for the L.A. Zoo's Pachyderm Forest; Bob Barker donates to the opposition
Jack Hanna announces his support for the L.A. Zoo's controversial elephant exhibit
Conservationist Daphne Sheldrick: Billy the elephant belongs in a sanctuary

-- Lindsay Barnett

Photo: Billy in his current enclosure at the L.A. Zoo.  Credit: Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times

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